As child of the 90s in an antibiotic-obsessed America, virtually anytime I got sick, there was a solution: amoxicillin. Served straight from the fridge, this bubble-gum pink, milkshake-thick, candy-like medicine was a cure-all antibiotic given out like, well, candy. And I loved it. But getting my hands on the pink stuff also meant a trip to the doctor’s office, which I hated. Luckily, in suburban Detroit, we had another cure-all that was dished out for any number of ailments, one that didn’t require having a cold stethoscope placed on our bare torsos or a long Q-tip jammed into our throats (let alone a dangerous reliance on antibiotics): Vernors ginger soda.
Sure, many people grew up getting ginger ale dosed out by their mother when their tummies hurt or they were feeling nauseated. But in Michigan, our mothers took it to a whole other level.
Stomach ache? Vernors. Nausea? Vernors. Cough? Vernors. Headache? Fatigue? Crankiness? Vernors.
If you grew up in Southeast Michigan – or most other places in the state for that matter – chances are, regardless of the problem, Vernors was the solution, at least as far as your mother was concerned. And her mother before her.
Does a ginger soft drink actually soothe any of these ailments? Well, not according to science (but the placebo effect is powerful).
There has long been a theory that ginger ale could help soothe upset stomachs and nausea – largely based on the idea that fresh ginger or ginger extract has anti-inflammatory and other soothing properties for the gastrointestinal tract. The problem is, even if that’s true, most ginger sodas (Vernor’s included) don’t have any actual ginger or ginger extract included in the ingredient list, and those that do – like Canada Dry – won’t reveal how much ginger there actually is.
There’s dubious evidence at best that any ginger ale can help with these symptoms. Additionally, it does nothing to hydrate you and loads you with sugar-laden artificial ingredients like high fructose corn syrup. But science be damned, because if you’re from the Mitten State you know what’s good for you. And even if your mother is wrong, your grandma can’t be.
So if there’s no actual ginger in it, what makes this particular ginger beverage so special?
Well, for one thing, it’s not ginger ale. Not quite, anyway. Branded as “America’s oldest ginger soda,” (much to my chagrin: this is a drink that’s a point of pride for Michigan, a state that virtually unanimously calls soda “pop”) Vernor’s lies somewhere on the spectrum between ginger ale and ginger beer.
It’s sweet, heavily spiced and so carbonated that the first sip from a can is highly likely to make you sneeze. It’s also aged for three years in oak barrels (though it used to be four) for an extra robust flavor.
Vernor’s has been around since 1862, making it one of the oldest – if not the oldest – continuously available soft drinks in America. And it does have a medicinal background, as it was created by Michigan’s first licensed pharmacist as a medical tonic with vanilla, spices and ginger.
According to the company itself, “Without the Civil War, there would be no Vernors. Before the conflict began, James Vernor, a Detroit pharmacist, had concocted a new drink. When Vernor was called off to war in 1862, he stored the secret mixture in an oak cask in his pharmacy. After returning from battle four years later, he opened his secret keg and found the drink inside had been transformed.”
It’s a nice little origin story, and apparently, despite the fact that even James Vernor’s son has said it’s untrue, Vernors parent company Dr. Pepper is going with it. Well, OK then. What is true, however, is that Vernor did start selling a ginger pop he created after the war at drugstore fountains throughout the area. Later, he got out of the drugstore business to focus on selling his ginger concoction.
It didn’t take long for Vernors to open a bottling factory in Detroit, where it had a sign that was a part of the city’s skyline, but the company has since moved out of the city (though not the state) and has been sold several times, and is now owned by Dr. Pepper. Still, Michiganders are just as obsessed with it as ever.
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Think the word obsessed is too strong? Well, then you haven’t heard of Keith Wunderlich, a 59-year-old who has turned his basement into a veritable Vernors museum after spending 35 years collecting more than 1,000 pieces of Vernors paraphernalia. And Wunderlich is not alone – he founded the Vernor’s Ginger Ale Collector’s Club, which somehow has 70 similarly enthused members.
Wunderlich and co. may be a little over the top, but they do have good taste: Vernors is undoubtedly the best mass-produced carbonated ginger drink money can buy. Sure, you can find an artisanally made, handcrafted, blablabla ginger drinks with better quality ingredients (though they will be way more expensive, and might not necessarily taste better), but compared to anything you’ll find among the Coke and the Pepsi at your local grocery store, Vernors is far superior.
Think I’m biased? A few years ago, Serious Eats did a blind taste test of 13 ginger ales and Vernors won easily, thanks to a flavor like “cream soda, but with a ginger warmth.”
When it’s not curing all manner of disease via placebo effect, the pop’s best use is arguably in a Boston Cooler (named for a street in Detroit, not for the city in Massachusetts), which is basically a Vernors float with vanilla ice cream. When I was a kid, my local ice cream shop (OK, fine, it was Dairy Queen), took the Boston Cooler to the next level, blending it like a milkshake, and this, friends, I can tell you, is the best way to drink a Vernors. It’s got the creaminess of a shake, and the vanilla flavor is enhanced while the intense ginger taste and carbonation are toned down, but not muted, by the ice cream.
Before writing this article, I called my mom up – who now lives in Arizona – and asked her whether she still actually believes that Vernors can cure symptoms ranging from headaches to coughs.
“Of course,” she said. “And let me tell you something: thank god they sell it in Arizona, or I don’t know what I’d do. I’d probably have to have grandma ship me some, I guess.”